19 - Chris
I forget to lock my car door as I slam it shut – surprised it doesn't just fall off it's hinges with the condition it's in – and, through the dusky darkness, bound up the stairs to our flat. My heavy footsteps pound against the hard concrete, the sound of their slaps echoing through the cold stairwell. Never have I ever cursed a flight of stairs as much as I'm doing now, leaping up two steps at a time, getting closer and closer to Ashley. But the more steps I run up, the more flights I pass, the further she feels away from me. Like our apartment door is sinking further and further down a dark, sticky tunnel. Trust us to only be able to afford a floor six flat in a building with no elevator.
My lungs are burning when I finally stop, my feet almost tripping over themselves, a hollow echo rattling against the close walls. For a second, I just want to collapse over myself; to grab my knees, bend over and breathe. But I don't have time for that. My hand controls me, yanking out the front door key, slamming it into the lock and twisting.
"Ash?" I call out through short breaths as I push the door open, attempting not to sound panicked. If she was here, she'd probably start worrying about me and push me towards a doctor to make sure I haven't developed asthma. Knowing her – and how easily I overreact when it comes to her safety – she's probably just in a huff because I didn't listen to her pleadings not to go to Josh. That would be so typical her.
But... she'd never refuse to answer the phone, no matter who it was. Her mother often phones up regularly, around about this time, to check how Ashley is coping. I'm not entirely sure whether it's because she's worried about her daughter's mental state or because she just plainly doesn't trust me to look after her. Neither of that should concern me simply because it makes Ashley happy. She loves to catch up with her mum – I've often caught her lounging on the cold, wood floor beside the landline in the hall, the phone cradled in her hand, spending hours in conversation with her mum. At times like that, I wouldn't dare disturb her and, as a – probably not so pleasant – surprise, I'd take a stab at making the dinner for that night.
The door thuds shut as I hurry into the apartment, my trained ears hearing nothing but my creaking footsteps and the occasional pounding of the wind against the window panes – a sound I've accustomed myself to be able to sleep through. "Ash?" I try again, willing for her to respond, needing for her to respond. Oh, how much I'd give for her now to pace into the hollow hallway, cross her arms and mock me for being, once again, overly anxious about her.
I let out a painful whimper from the back of my throat, my worst fears taking over. She's been kidnapped. She's been killed. Streaks of blood will scuff the wooden floors, leading me to her mauled, disfigured body, like a rag doll on the floor. Throwing away all preconceptions, I rush through the hallway, flicking the button on the answering machine as I pass, just in case... just in case she called. The distinct, computerised voice echoes through the barely furnished building, my feet pushing me to search every room; "Two new messages."
"Chris?! Chris?!" It's Sam. I can hear her clear voice bouncing like a tennis ball against the bare, hollow walls as I hurry into the living room – nothing. No Ashley – then into the kitchen – still no Ashley. "Oh hell, are neither of you picking up now? Okay, Chris, listen," Sam's voice is so crisp even as I circle into the bedroom. It's as if she's almost in the room with me, her voice ricocheting into my ears, "The photographs; on that site? They're not just photos! They're clues. Messages! Damn, why can't you pick up?" She mutters under her breath before demanding, "Call me as soon as you can."
I run anxious fingers through my hair, my eyes darting around to search for some kind of clue, something to tell me where Ashley could have gone. I don't even want to think about the photographs now – whatever Sam was talking about (how the hell could they be messages anyway?) My mind is being tugged by Ashley, always be Ashley. She's never once let go, her firm grip clinging onto me.
I've checked every room. Every bloody single room, every crevice, every shadow. Panic is rising up in me, controlling me, pushing bile up my throat. Tears sting my eyes. I can't think straight. Where? Where?
"Chris?" Ashley! It's her voice! On instinct, like she's pulling on that rope she has wrapped around me, I run to the landline, my eyes connecting instantly with the voicemail machine that holds all the answers right about now. I reach out and cup the black plastic, tempted to shake it, to release all the secrets it holds. But instead, I let my breath steady, keeping my eyes on the bleeping screen as if Ashley could be trapped inside of it. "You weren't answering your cellphone. It kept being diverted." I can hear the distinct sound of distant cars zooming past, her voice barely audible over them. She's outside! Somewhere...
I have to almost glue my feet to the hardwood floor before I go rushing outside blindly in search of her.
"I found something, Chris."
Where are you?
I will her to answer, my eyes stuck on the black machine, boring into it. Interrogating it. Staring it down.
"I don't know what it is but it's important."
Where are you?!
"I need your help, Chris."
"I'm at the park. Come qui-"
Before the voicemail message can even finish, I'm lunging myself towards the door, swinging it open and bounding through.
The wet grass crunches underneath my feet, looking more navy blue in this dark night, rather than green. The chilly air breathes down my neck as I jog across the park, my eyes searching for the distinct outline of Ashley's silhouette. A nearby group of smokers watch me boldly from a park bench, and I awkwardly try my best not to make eye contact. I'm not exactly very enthusiastic with getting involved with drugs as well as an escaped convict.
My breath shivers in the air. I can see the condensation puffing out of my mouth in blocks, evaporating as soon as it hits the wind. The dark, shadowy trees loom around me like spears and daggers and blades. I wrap my arms around myself, my coat failing to protect me from the chilly air.
"Ash?" I harshly whisper, watching my breath accompany my words, spelling them out in the air.
A nearby swing set creaks, the silhouette of it now ominously resembling a hanging frame rather than the joyous, child's plaything during the day. Things change a lot during the night.
I glance down at my phone screen again, the glow from it my only source of light. I shine it towards shadowy areas under trees and across the stretches of grass. I've been trying to phone Ash on her cellphone multiple times but, typical her, she always leaves it off – to save battery, apparently. She thinks she's being practical. I try not to contest.
"Chris!" Her whisper almost catches me off guard, stumbling backwards. I swing towards her, seeing her huddled under a few branches of a tree.
"Ash!" I let out a breath of relief, rushing towards her and wrapping her body up in my arms. The material of her jacket feels cold and crisp. "Are you alright?" I step back a space to peer at what little I can see of her face. She's covered in shadows but the only thing she's seems uncomfortable about is the cold, her gloved hands rubbing together. "What are you doing out here?" My voice cracks as I demand an answer from her, my worry resulting in frustration.
Wordlessly, Ashley simply points to the trunk of the tree, a thick, weaving arrow carved into it, showing the tree's flesh underneath. The point of the arrow is positioned upwards, towards the roof of leaves.
"Somebody was leading me here," she explains, cuddling up to my warmth. I think she's secretly glad she's no longer alone out here. "I don't know who but – you know that website you were trying to hack? They sent us a message on there." She swallows, her big eyes, round and looking up at mine. The light of my phone reflects against them.
I shake my head, fear rising up. Unbelievable. They were watching. They knew Ashley had been alone, that the website was up on our computer screen. And they'd taken advantage – for whatever sick reason they had in store.
And of course they knew Ashley would take the bait. She can't resist a good mystery – I'm pretty sure her childhood was consumed with reading Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton novels.
"What was it then?" I ask hoarsely, glancing behind my shoulder just in case there's a shadowing figure watching us, the flash of a camera glinting in the night. Nothing – there's nothing. But in a cold, dark night like this, it wouldn't be hard to hide. They've been pretty skilled at hiding so far. "What... were they leading you to?"
"I don't know," she shrugs, pointing the same way the arrow does. "It's up there."
Cautiously and curiously, I bend my cellphone so that the light shines up past the tree trunk into the branches. There, not too far up, is a piece of white paper tied to a rickety branch, fluttering in the cold wind.
"Is that it?" I breathe and Ashley pauses, following my line of sight.
She shakes her head in bewilderment but comments, "It must be." Her hand stuffs into the jacket pocket, pulling out a stack of folded notes. "Come to the park, in the dark, up in a tree and you will see," she reads the printed text before nodding, lifting her eyes.
Obligingly, I stretch up, my fingers brushing just underneath the paper's edge. Cursing, I stretch up further, almost dislocating my shoulder as I clip the paper between two fingers, tug it and pull it down.
"What is it?" Ashley asks, peering over my elbow at the paper. I shine my cellphone onto it, reading the bold, black text.
"It's an appointment card," I mutter, confusion taking over. I squint, baffled, as my eyes follow the words. "At 10:30am tomorrow... with a Dr. Alan Hill..."